Henry Threadgill Credit: John Rogers

Chicago native Henry Threadgill has been on a tear lately with his inventive and versatile band Zooid, whose interpretations of his dazzling compositions are guided by fixed harmonic intervals embedded in the material. That means everyone improvises all at once, in a context that demands the highest levels of concentration but yields dividends worthy of the investment. The music keeps on giving, rich in sophisticated interplay and melodic and harmonic detail. And today Threadgill released Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi), the fantastic debut recording by a different group: the seven-piece Ensemble Double Up.

I saw Ensemble Double Up premiere this music in 2014 at the Winter Jazz Festival in New York, and now as then, Threadgill doesn’t play—instead he conducts a top-notch lineup consisting of two pianists (Jason Moran and David Virelles), two alto saxophonists (Curtis MacDonald and Roman Filiu), tubaist Jose Davila, cellist Christopher Hoffman, and drummer Craig Weinrib. The album is a concert-length work written in homage to cornetist Lawrence “Butch” Morris, pioneer of conduction, who died in January 2013; starting in the mid-70s, he’d often often played alongside Threadgill, after they both ended up in New York. I remember being impressed by Ensemble Double Up at the festival, but the sound quality was a bit muddy, so that it was occasionally difficult to make out the contours of the multilinear music (unlike with Zooid, a model of concision and clarity). That’s not a problem on this excellent recording, which captures every detail of the band’s joyous polyphony.

It’s surprising how much the saxophonists’ playing recalls Threadgill’s tart, halting lines, but they’ve clearly studied him, and MacDonald has worked as his copyist for three years, giving him a particularly strong familiarity with the intricacies of his musical thinking. Old Locks and Irregular Verbs expands on the system Threadgill uses in Zooid, but he says it’s “not as tightly prescribed”—the musicians have more latitude to navigate the material according to what they’re hearing from their bandmates. Considering the size of the lineup, it’s impressive that the music feels so lucid. Moran and Virelles are two of the most exciting pianists at work in improvised music today, and they offer the other players an expansive harmonic palette—it’s also remarkable that each is willing to cede to the other so often. The work is intended to be a single piece, but the CD breaks it up into four chunks, the second of which you can hear below.
The final part of this segment flows continuously out of what preceded it, but you can hear a change in tone and approach—the music becomes much more emotional. Threadgill wrote the conclusion as kind of a chorale to Morris—he was charismatic and influential, a warm thinker and musician who seemed to spread happiness wherever he went (I’ll never forget sharing a dinner with him in Istanbul). A beautifully ornamental piano duo, embroidered with grandiloquent flourishes, gains in intensity and is joined by mournful, funereal horns—a spin on New Orleans tradition that turns a lamentation into a sizzling celebration—and then the piece halts suddenly. At 72 years old, Threadgill is still as potent a force as ever.

Today’s playlist:

James Carr, A Man Needs a Woman (Kent)
Steffen Schleiermacher, Christian Wolff: Early Piano Pieces (Hat Art)
Brazilian Octopus, Brazilian Octopus (Som Livre/Fermata)
Derek Bailey, Ballads (Tzadik)
Monkey Plot, Løv og Lette Vimpler (Gigafon)